Kyla Ross competes on the uneven bars during day one of the senior women's competition at the Visa Championships on June 8, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri.
ST. LOUIS -- An American gymnast stepped forward into the all-important bars and beam Thursday, and it wasn’t Nastia Liukin.
Instead, it was Kyla Ross, a 16-year-old from Mission Viejo, Calif., who ended the first night of her first senior national championships with the best uneven bars score (15.500), tied for the fourth-best balance beam score (15.100) and solidly in fourth place in the all-around competition. The second round of the Visa Championships — which determines who moves on to the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials — continues Sunday at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis.
“There’s a lot of things I could have done better, and I definitely was not happy that I had to downgrade my vault,” said Ross, whose decision to downgrade her vault seemingly overshadowed the strong performance for her. “But I think I had a pretty clean meet and hopefully, I’ll come back Sunday and come back even stronger.”
The usual suspects ended the first day atop the all-around competition: reigning world and national champion Jordyn Wieber and rising star Gabby Douglas tied at 60.650 with Aly Raisman just behind at 60.200.
The big story coming into the meet was Liukin, though. The 2008 Olympic all-around champion is back at nationals after a nearly three-year absence, and this time she’s hoping to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team on the balance beam and the uneven bars — two events in which she won silver medals in Beijing and two events in which the United States could use some oomph.
After Liukin returned to competition with a solid balance beam performance two weeks ago at the Secret U.S. Classic, the big question entering this meet was how she would fare on the uneven bars, her first competition in that event since Beijing.
The answer came early, and it was not a good one.
With fans’ eyes uniformly on Liukin — a rare feat in a four-ring circus gymnastics meet — she began her routine and quickly showed her rust. Her legs came apart early and she had to improvise after another mistake. Ultimately Liukin ended her routine with a layout instead of a full dismount, although she said later that was planned.
Liukin rebounded a few minutes later with an overall solid balance beam routine — her 15.100 tied with Ross for the fourth best of the night — but her 13.150 was the lowest of 21 balance beam scores on the night.
“That was really low seeing a 13 by my name,” said the Russian-born Liukin, who calls Texas home. “But hopefully it will get better.”
Liukin is confident it will. She said she only began putting together her bar routine about a week and a half ago and that U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, the lead voice in deciding which gymnasts move on to the U.S. Olympic Trials June 28-July 1 in San Jose, Calif., is on board with the training plan.
“From the Classics until now, which was basically a week and a half of preparation, I was able to put a bar routine together,” Liukin, 22, said. “I did make quite a bit of progress in a week and a half, but I know there is a lot still to be made in the next few weeks. It’s time to really buckle down because this is for real now.”
If Liukin didn’t exactly inspire confidence for American prowess on the bars, Ross and Douglas certainly did. The 16-year-old Douglas competed the bars immediately after Liukin and wowed the crowd with her high-flying release moves and her solid landing. Her 15.450 score was second only to Ross’ 15.500 in the event.
“I feel really awesome right now,” said Douglas, whom Karolyi dubbed the “Flying Squirrel” for her acrobatics on the bars. “All this hard work has paid off.”
Wieber and Raisman were typically solid all-around with no major mistakes. Raisman opened the competition with a tone-setting performance on the floor routine. Her 15.450 easily held up as the best score of the night.
Meanwhile, on the vault, 2010 world champion Alicia Sacramone was bested only by 2011 world champion McKayla Maroney. But the 16-year-old Maroney outscored the 24-year-old captain of the 2008 Olympic team by a dominating 16.150 to 15.450. Sacramone had the second best score on her other event Thursday, however, with 15.200 on the beam.
The other returning 2008 Olympian, 19-year-old Bridget Sloan, completed a solid if unspectacular day with a 56.250 all-around score. It was her first all-around competition since 2009, when she won the world title. Her best result Thursday was on uneven bars, where her 15.100 score was the fifth best Thursday.
The Visa Championships continue with Day 2 of the men’s competition on Saturday followed by the final day of women’s competition on Sunday. The combined two-day scores will determine the U.S. champions, and after the competitions USA Gymnastics will name 15 men and approximately 20 women who will go on to the Olympic Trials. From there, five men and five women will be selected for the London 2012 Olympic Games.